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“The Suburra. This place hasn’t changed in 2000 years. Patricians, plebeians, politicians and criminals. Whores and priests … Rome”.
Italy is on a winning streak in turning acclaimed cinema into grade A quality TV. First there was Romanzo Criminale, then the shocking Gomorrah highlighting the horror of gang violence in Naples. Now, 2016’s very impressive Suburra – a film focusing on the intersection between gangsterdom and politics – has been adapted with the help of Netflix into a ten-part series entitled: Suburra: Blood on Rome. The result: an authentic, refreshingly unglamorous crime drama with shades of House of Cards.
The opening two episodes set various events in motion. Perhaps most noteworthy is the Sara Monaschi (Claudia Gerini, John Wick 2) plot line in which the wife of a businessman attempts to get the church to sell property to her husband by supplying a high-ranking Vatican priest with coke-filled, prostitute orgies. What could possibly go wrong? The answer is everything.
Meanwhile, the Samurai (Francesco Acquaroli), an enigmatic shadowy older gangster has big plans for Rome’s future. However, to secure them, he needs to ensnarl idealistic but world-weary politician Amedeo Cinaglia (Filippo Negro – bringing the same bald head and sympathy Corey Stoll did to early House of Cards) into his web of crime.
On top of these two plots, there is the unstable truce instigated by the Samurai of two warring clans: the Adami’s and the Anacleti’s. The hot-head sons of both families fail to keep the peace. Plus, there’s also Gabrielle (Eduardo Valdarnini), a college student and son of a cop who deals pills and organises bunga bunga parties on the side.
The main enjoyment one derives from these episodes is watching these seemingly separate pawns collide in a way which is unexpected for the viewer but in hindsight feels so tight and precise. As more is revealed, one begins to realise that every player is connected – culminating in the final moments of the pilot which link a lot of strands together in such a neat way.
Upon its release in 2016, I compared the film of Suburra to the work of David Simon. There’s touches of that here too, particularly in its portrayal of how absolute power corrupts absolutely and how ideals fade as the realities of life make themselves prevalent. “You remember the day you stopped dreaming of being champion?”, The Samurai asks Cinaglia at one point. Sometimes it’s easier to settle than to try and fail.
The only significant flaw I have with Suburra: Blood on Rome is a comparison to the film it’s based on. The movie (directed by Stefano Sollima, slated to helm Sicario sequel Soldado) was visually stunning – featuring images which looked like frescos of violence – and utilised music really well (it had the best use of M83’s over sampled Outro). The TV show in comparison, despite the first two episodes directed by the talented Michele Placido (Romanzo Criminale, Angel of Evil, 7 Minutes), feels more standard in look. Placido does make his Rome setting feel tangible but the aesthetic of the show – music, interior shots, action set-pieces – doesn’t separate itself all that much from Gomorrah’s.
Yet it’s tough to get too angry about this issue because like most foreign drama that makes its way to English speaking countries, Suburra: Blood on Rome possesses a grit and verisimilitude lacking from American or English TV. Many of the lead characters are scum. However, that doesn’t mean one can’t find their situations and quandaries gripping, particularly when they’re backed by a well-constructed plot and solid writing.